Who will make the rules in tomorrow’s world?

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Review: “Socialization as a Two-Way Process: Emerging Powers and the Diffusion of International Norms” by Xiaoyu Pu
(The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2012, 1 of 27)

To many international relations scholars, today's key question is whether emerging powers will accept or reject the Western-centered institutions that make up the current global order. They seek to understand whether established powers are able to help emerging powers ‘socialize’ and integrate into the current structures. The West's ‘responsible stakeholder’ narrative is a shrewd attempt to box in emerging powers and present them with two stark options of responsible integration or  irresponsible confrontation - yet it remains up to the system’s creators and norm setters to define what ‘responsible’ and ‘irresponsible’ mean. Stewart Patrick’s recent article in Foreign Affairs (which I have reviewed here) is an interesting example of how emerging powers are called ‘irresponsible’ whenever they happen to disagree with the United States - thus attempting to delegitimize non-Western rising powers that do not fully comply with established norms.

Yet what if emerging powers seek to become not merely well-behaved norm takers, but norm makers?

Xiaoyu Pu, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, has written a thought-provoking article about this question. He rightly notes that the impact of emerging powers as normative powers is understudied. For centuries, the West determined the ‘standard of civilization’ which set the bar for the rest of the world – yet because of a shift of power away from Europe and the United States, emerging powers have appeared more assertive on the world stage.

There is no theoretical consensus in about how to think of socialization in international relations. Realists fundamentally think of it as a Darwinian competition in an anarchical system – the most competitive behavior will automatically be emulated by others out of self-interest; a global norm emerges as a consequence. Constructivists regard socialization as a process of the diffusion and internalization of norms. Most models look at socialization as a phenomenon between an established actor and norm-creator on the one hand, and a newcomer and norm-adopter about to be socialized on the other.

Policy makers generally operate according to this model. Russia’s inclusion into the G7 in 1997 can be seen as an attempt to integrate and socialize Russia into a system based on specific rules and norms. After World War II, Germany’s socialization and integration into the West was an explicit goal of US foreign policy. China’s inclusion into the WTO and its socialization into global arms norms are other examples of how dominant actors in global order seek to ‘entrap’ outsiders into the system.

Normative change has, since 1945, been seen in the context of Westernization, international progress, and the victory of good over evil – a theoretical framework strongly influenced by Wilsonian liberal internationalism. Non-Western socialization has often a negative connotation, as is visible in the debate about China’s growing influence in Africa and the supposedly negative consequences of ‘rogue aid’ that comes free of conditionalities. (As Deborah Brautigam points out in her authoritative work on China’s role in Africa (reviewed here), there is little evidence that China’s influence on the African continent is significantly different from that of Western powers).

The existing theoretical approaches are thus insufficient to explain a much more complex reality in which emerging actors may adopt prevalent social norms, but by adopting and applying them in their respective social context they end up changing the global norm. But how exactly does ‘reciprocal socialization’ work?

As Xiaoyu Pu shows, legitimacy is a fundamental element of hegemony. The hegemon’s ideology must be widely accepted and its rule must be deemed legitimate by the rest of the world. Legitimacy contestation, as a consequence, is an important element of international political change, the author argues: “the systemic change of international relations could be viewed as a transformation of the parameters of political legitimacy.” For Xiaoyu Pu, delegitimation creates the conditions for the emergence of a revisionist counter-hegemonic coalition. He writes that “the revisionist power voices its dissatisfaction with the established order and forges the social purpose that will become the foundation of its demand for a new world order.” He makes a similar argument in a previously published article (“After Unipolarity”), in which delegitimation and deconcentration of power are portrayed as preconditions for the creation of an anti-hegemonic coalition. Xiaoyu Pu says that the current international political change conforms to the early phases of the power cycle model.

Delegitimizing rhetoric may indeed be a precondition for the creation of an anti-hegemonic coalition, yet it is not entirely clear that delegitimation inevitably leads to anti-hegemonic behavior. Looking at emerging powers’ current rhetoric, one may indeed come to believe that anti-systemic rhetoric meant to delegitimize the hegemon seeks to satisfy a nationalist domestic public, and thus serve as a substitute for actual balancing behavior. When looking at the BRICS’ behavior, it becomes obvious that they are far more status-quo oriented than their rhetoric suggests. Calls for slight modifications of voting rights in the IMF, for example, are not meant to undermine Bretton Woods institutions – quite to the contrary, the BRICS have been instrumental in the process of keeping the IMF alive. Brazil’s former President Lula routinely demonized the IMF, but also decided to strengthen the institution by lending money to it. Xiaoyu Pu explains this behavior by arguing that emerging powers first need to integrate into social order to gain legitimacy. Over the past decades, China sought to become a ‘normal’ state, and Brazil’s decision to sign the NPT in 1998 was largely meant to integrate it into the international community.

The author’s expectation that rhetoric is the precursor to action has appeal, but he does not fully clarify a number of issues. First, many countries engage in anti-hegemonic rhetoric and ‘rightful resistance’ and may even hope to delegitimize global order, yet they are too small to ever have the chance to meaningfully participate in the creation of an anti-hegemonic alliance. Anti-American rhetoric and voting UNGA behavior in Latin America, for example, has been rife for a long time, but there is no sign that even the most virulent anti-Americans have any interest or capacity in supporting alternatives to the current global order. The author writes that “the strategy of rightful resistance can have opposite goals. It can strengthen the state’s position for the purpose of working within the established order, or for the purpose of waging a hegemonic bid to overturn that order when doing so becomes a viable option.” This argument is sound, but it is not entirely clear how to tell which delegitimation meant to strengthen the state's position within the existing order, and which is supposed to confront current structures.

Three more questions stand out:

First, a classic liberal argument poses a formidable challenge: Why would emerging powers be interested in changing the rules and norms of an order which provides them with so many benefits and few costs? Xiaoyu Pu himself points out that “socialization into the liberal order has strengthened the miraculous growth of emerging powers such as India and China.” As Ikenberry tells us, overthrowing the established order is hard, but building a new order that finds followers is even harder and extremely costly. This is particularly important as long as GDP per capita remains significantly lower in China, India and Brazil than in the rich word, which makes their governments less willing to assume global responsibilities (the economist Hans Rosling predicts that GDP per capita in India and China will reach Western levels only in 2047).

Secondly, where will the ideas come from that create the intellectual basis for an alternative global order? Emerging powers challenge the notion that Western norms are superior to those of the rest of the world, and the rhetoric used during BRICS Summits is at times revisionist, but it lacks an overarching coherence that could translate into tangible institutions and structures to replace the current ones. Chinese visions of potential alternatives to the current global order remain virtually unknown, and China makes no overt attempt to promote them abroad. As I have pointed out before, US dominance over system-shaping ideas remains very strong. As long as delegitimation remains little more than a ritual, any anti-hegemonic alliance has no intellectual foundation, and, as a consequence, no chance of finding converts.

Finally, how can ideas that will provide the framework for anti-hegemonic alliances emerge when those capable of implementing them have such divergent grievances? The yearly BRICS Summits are productive (and I am a great supporter of their continued existence), but nobody can deny that each member’s ideas of what needs to change are unique and finding common denominators is excruciatingly difficult. This would not matter much if China could be expected to be soon as dominant as the United States was in the 1950s – decision-makers in Beijing could develop their very own ideas and attempt to apply them once they felt the time was right. But the 21st century will most likely be much more multipolar, with China, India, the United States, and perhaps Europe and Brazil with norm- and system-shaping capacities. Emerging powers will be unable to avoid these questions as they seek to adopt a more proactive role as norm- and agenda setters.

From a more practical point of view, Brazil’s decision to launch the concept of the ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ (RwP) – which Xiaoyu Pu refers to – is both encouraging and dispiriting at the same time. Upon being launched in November 2011, the idea received considerable attention by specialists around the world. With that attention came, quite naturally, a lot of criticism, something Brazilian policy makers seemed rather reluctant to deal with. Unwilling to take a stand, develop a global strategy to promote the idea and to flesh it out in a second concept paper, the Brazilian government has retreated. One of the reasons why R2P became a global norm was that Gareth Evans tirelessly promoted it around the world. Brazil’s President, by contrast, did not bother to elaborate on the idea during her opening remarks in the UN General Assembly in September 2012. Perhaps loathe to get pulled into an unnecessary and potentially time-consuming debate it had little stake in, Brazil’s suppressed its desire to become a global agenda-setter.

It seems certain that other emerging powers such as China and India will make similar attempts to dabble in global norm shaping. The resulting power diffusion, Xiaoyu Pu believes, will bring chaos. He argues that “a global pluralist vision of world order is likely to emerge in the 21st century” – akin to Charles Kupchan’s vision of “no one’s world” in which the normative divide will constrain the prospect of effective global governance. As I have argued in my review of Kupchan’s book, a return to a “compartmentalized world”, with each region operating according to culturally particular and exclusive principles, is unlikely, given that trade and modern technology make it difficult for countries like China to follow vastly different operating principles than the United States. Only time can tell whether we are truly headed for a global dissensus.

Read also:

Book review: “Pax Indica” by Shashi Tharoor

Book review: “American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts”

Book review: “Liberal Leviathan” by G. John Ikenberry

Book review: “The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the 21st Century” by G. John Ikenberry et al.

Photo credit Jonathan Ernst/Reuters